Daniel McCusker and the Ram Island Dance Company, the attraction at Dance Place this weekend, were not only a pleasure in themselves but also a sign the dance fever that has gripped this country over the past couple of decades is running high even in far-flung places.
The Ram Island troupe, based in Portland, Maine, has been operating on a professional level since 1973. McCusker was named artistic director last fall. An accomplished dance artist, he left a flourishing career in New York City, where he'd been a member of the Lucinda Childs company for six years, to pursue his growing choreographic interests on fresh terrain. From the evidence of Saturday night's performance (the second of three), McCusker's intrepid move is proving a boon to both parties -- the company and its leader.
The company consists of six dancers including McCusker, evenly divided between the sexes. The others aren't on McCusker's level, but they make a well-matched, attractive ensemble, and they dance like they mean it. Among them are two formerly active in our area -- bright, spunky Sara Whale, who danced with Baltimore groups, and gently lyrical Betsy Eagan Beaven, once a member of the Maryland Dance Theater.
As a choreographer, McCusker owes some of his traits -- geometric patternings, repetition and rhythmic pulsation, expressive gesture -- to Childs, but his intelligently crafted work also displays a physiognomy of its own. In "Taking Sides," he uses chain formations, patty-cake imagery and other devices echoing the folksy Irish music by the Chieftains as coloration for an essentially abstract dance, working permutationally with a limited number of basic moves.
The new "what happened," set to Satie's "Trois Gymnope'dies," is even more determinedly formalistic, though with a humorous tinge in its manipulation of three folding chairs as props by the trio of dancers, a la David Gordon. Both these works are engaging, but both could use editing -- McCusker tries so hard to milk every last drop from an idea that he sometimes loses sight of overall proportions.
The company also performed a reconstruction of Charles Weidman's 1967 "Brahms Waltzes," acquired on McCusker's initiative from the Dance Notation Bureau. Though Larry Lee Van Horne was especially fine here, and Whale, Beaven and Cheryl Mitchell each made worthy contributions, the interpretation was only intermittently equal to the technical and expressive demands of the piece. It attained one major objective, however -- a demonstration of the fecundity of Weidman's genius, balanced so delicately between wit and pathos.
McCusker's most rewarding opus of the evening was last year's "Story," enhanced by an excellent minimalist score by Richard Munson. Slide projections of sectional titles ("Highlights," "Exposition" and "Commentary"), along with held poses suggesting old snapshots, helped sustain an atmosphere of wistful nostalgia. "Story," in a typical Post-Modernist vein, tells no story, but nevertheless manages to hint at relationships in flux. The middle section, with its crisscrossing sweeps, bespeaks McCusker's link to Childs. A highlight is a McCusker solo in the final section, a virtuosic gust of falls, rolls, spins and slides at breakneck tempo.
All in all, the evening argued convincingly for the decentralization of dance -- you know the concept is benevolent if it bears fruit as savory as this.